In this guide, we look at how this ‘always-on’ workplace culture has crept up on us, and what can be done to maximise your wellbeing by responsibly managing notifications and communications – all while keeping on top of your workload.
Different types of communication
We communicate every day – with our family and friends, colleagues, and strangers. But how, when and where we speak to different people varies depending on a number of factors.
At work, you may make a choice between arranging a video call with a client or sending them an email. In your personal life, you might send your friend a voice note to catch up on your week or wait until you meet up in person at the weekend. All of these differences will impact the way you communicate.
It can help to break down the types of communication you’re likely to experience by the channel you’re using, and the style in which you need to communicate:
In the workplace, you will experience a number of different types of communication. It could be remote video calls with your team, emails from other departments, or formal face-to-face meetings. Even that glance across the office from a colleague would be considered non-verbal communication.
By non-verbal, we’re referring to the physical postures and gestures which go alongside what you say, the tone and pace of your voice, and the overall attitude with which you communicate. Non-verbal cues can be subtle yet powerful, but they aren’t present every time you communicate. In fact, a lot of workplace communication lacks non-verbal cues – for example, emails and phone calls.
The impact of remote work
The way we work has changed dramatically in recent years, with more people finding that they can do their jobs from anywhere in the world. In September 2021, half of British workers (50%) were still working from home at least some of the time, up from 37% before the pandemic, according to YouGov data.
An even higher number (60%) would prefer to work remotely always or some of the time if they could choose. While this flexibility has many benefits, it can also have a negative impact on effective communication.
When team members are spread out across different time zones, it can be difficult to schedule video conferences or phone calls. And even when everyone is online at the same time, there can be lag times or internet connection issues that make real-time conversations difficult. Remote communication can sometimes feel less personal than in-person interactions, which can make it harder to build trust and connection. It can be hard to build rapport with someone when you’ve never met face-to-face.
As a result, many remote teams have found that they need to be more intentional about communication to help ensure that everyone is on the same page, making an effort to be clear and concise.
How notifications and alerts can affect workplace wellbeing
Workplace wellbeing is an area of employee health that is gaining more and more attention from businesses. And there's a good reason for this: happier, healthier employees are more productive, have more energy and are absent less.
Workplace wellbeing is all about creating a healthy and supportive environment for employees. This includes:
- Physical health (e.g. ergonomic workplace design)
- Mental health (e.g. stress management programmes)
- Social health (e.g. team building activities)
By investing in workplace wellbeing, businesses can create a happier, healthier workforce that is more engaged and productive.
The problems of an ‘always-on’ culture
In recent years, there has been a shift towards an 'always-on' workplace culture, where employees may be expected to be available at all hours of the day. While this might increase productivity in the short term, it can also lead to a number of problems in the long run.
It can be difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance when you’re always on call – whether you’ve explicitly been told you need to be available or it’s just a feeling, based on what other employees do or other pressures.
Rarely switching off from your work can lead to burnout and resentment towards your job. It can create a feeling of constant pressure and stress, which can lead to mistakes and accidents, and makes it incredibly difficult to relax and recharge.
But a surprising number of us are putting in extra hours at work. According to research, employees working from home were putting in an extra two and a half hours in the average working day during the pandemic in the United Kingdom, Austria, Canada and the United States.
Exploring the impact of additional work in a new report ‘Embracing the Age of Ambiguity’, Aviva discovered:
- Half of employees say they never fully switch off from work
- Majority of young adults regularly check emails outside of working hours
- More than a quarter agree that they are neglecting their physical and mental health due to being busy at work
How alerts and notifications affect us
While workplace notifications can be helpful in keeping us organised and on track, they also have a negative impact on our productivity and wellbeing. Constant notifications can contribute to the feeling you need to be available and ready to work at a moment’s notice.
As well as potentially contributing to rising stress levels, alerts can result in decreased focus and concentration. In fact, the average professional spends 28% of the work day reading and answering emails, according to a McKinsey analysis. Going into our inbox isn’t the only way we tend to check what’s coming in either – many of us have notifications that emerge in the corner of their computer screens.
There’s a cost to all of these interruptions. Researcher Sophie Leroy from the University of Washington tells Harvard Business Review (HBR) what happens: “As I am still thinking about Task A while trying to do Task B, I don’t have the cognitive capacity to process those two tasks at the same time and do a perfect job on both.”
HBR discusses various studies which outline just how long it can take you to re-focus on a task following a distraction – from 64 seconds to a potential 23 minutes and 15 seconds to fully recover after an interruption. That’s a lot of time for simply checking an email.
Electronic devices (and the notifications they alert us with) stimulate parts of our brains, as well as release chemicals or hormones. This includes:
Neuroeconomist Paul Zak says oxytocin is also “primarily a molecule of social connection”, describing it as the "social glue" that binds people together and fosters trust.
But how is this relevant to our screen use? Well, oxytocin is triggered when we interact with others. Zak has conducted studies that show tweeting triggers the hormone. “Your brain interpreted tweeting as if you were directly interacting with people you cared about or had empathy for,” Zak told the reporter who volunteered to be a test subject. “E-connection is processed in the brain like an in-person connection.” Posting a photo, messaging people or even replying to an email – it can all give a feeling similar to interacting with people in person.
In an evolutionary context, dopamine would have rewarded us for beneficial behaviours, motivating us to repeat them. For example, it’s released when we exercise, eat, have sex, or socialise. Many positive social stimuli will result in dopamine being released – almost like a reward. It reinforces the behaviour that preceded it, which includes interaction over any screen.
Our mobiles provide almost an unlimited amount of social interaction. Text messages, likes and comments, even work notifications – they all have the potential to release dopamine.
Cortisol is known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ hormone, which lets you know when you're in potential danger. But if you’re the type of person who regularly checks your phone, putting it down can trigger a release of cortisol. According to Psychologist Larry Rosen, California State University Dominguez Hills, who is researching the link between cortisol and mobile devices, that’s because we don’t have an alert or notification every time we check our phones, so our brain starts to wonder about checking. To get rid of the anxious feeling that cortisol gives you, you pick up your phone to see if anything has happened.
“When you put the phone down you don’t shut off your brain, you just put the phone down,” says Larry Rosen. The effects of using our devices and staring at screens don’t stop when we stop.
Communicating within appropriate boundaries
If you decide to take a break from social media, that’s a personal choice. If you’re usually slow to return your friend’s phone calls, again that’s a decision for you to make.
But at work, you’re expected to communicate. If you don’t fulfil certain elements of your role, you may find your behaviour being questioned or challenged.
You have to find a way to communicate within appropriate boundaries – in a way that suits you, allowing you to have a productive day at work without feeling like you’re fighting off a stream of notifications demanding your attention. Here is some advice:
Know what’s expected of you. This will vary between companies and even departments. Some of it will depend on your role. For example, a customer-facing job may involve a lot more in-person communication than an accounts role. The important thing is that as an employee you know what’s expected from you in terms of communications.
If you think that's unreasonable or are struggling, talk to someone. It’s natural to feel uncomfortable with setting boundaries. At work we tend to allow others to dictate how we manage our time. But if you feel like the communication expectations are unreasonable, you need to talk to someone about it. Don't be shy about reminding others about any agreements in place. This will encourage them to protect their schedule, too.
Share your communication preferences widely. It’s important to find ways to communicate when you are (and are not) available – for example, by outlining your usual working hours on a synced company calendar, making use of different statuses on instant messengers or including upcoming holiday on your email signature. The more others seem to be doing something, the more likely other people are to think that thing is right or normal.
Don’t check your alerts when you're on holiday. As we’ve discussed, you need time off to be productive at work. Rest is important. And you won’t be able to fully switch off from work if you have alerts on. All it takes is a distracting email or a message to pop up and you’ll be thinking about work when you should be switching off.
Tips and tricks for maintaining your focus
In today's fast-paced work environment, it's more important than ever to maintain your focus. With constant distractions from email, social media, and colleagues, it can be easy to lose track of what you're supposed to be doing.
Try these tips for maintaining your focus:
In our modern world, we’re constantly bombarded with notifications from our phones, computers, and other devices. Whether it's a new email, a text message, or a social media update, these constant interruptions can be extremely distracting. One way to help reduce the impact of notifications is to use greyscale mode on your devices. When everything is displayed in shades of grey, it becomes much less attention-grabbing. As a result, you're less likely to feel the need to check your phone every time it buzzes. Additionally, greyscale can help to reduce eye strain and fatigue.
Reduce the number of screens around you
If you want to stay focused while working, one of the best things you can do is put your phone away. Having your phone within reach can be a major distraction, so put it in another room or turn it off altogether. This way, you won't be tempted to check it every few minutes and can instead focus on your task.
Timeboxing is a powerful way of managing your time. You essentially block out periods of time to work on different things. It’s a way of protecting your own time to do what you need to. Whether that’s time for deep thinking, research, personal development or working on client pitches – it’s up to you. What’s important is that you’ll block this time out in your calendar in a meaningful way. Describing what you’re doing will help to prevent others from trying to steal your time as it’s clear what you’re working on.
Pause or mute notifications
Did you know the average worker is interrupted somewhere between four to 12 times every hour? In the best case scenario, that's being interrupted every 15 minutes. And as we’ve already discussed it can take over 20 minutes to get back on track.
That adds up to a lot of wasted time. Not to mention, all of those interruptions can be hugely disruptive to your workflow. If you're looking for a way to increase your focus and productivity at work, muting your notifications may be the answer. By silencing your email, text, and social media alerts, you can eliminate distractions and better utilise your time. What's more, you'll be less likely to make mistakes when you're not trying to juggle multiple tasks at once. So if you're ready to boost your productivity, start by hitting the mute button.
Have a clear start and end to your day
It's important to have a clear start and end to your working day for a number of reasons. First, it helps you to stay focused on your work and avoid burnout. If you know that you have a specific amount of time to complete your tasks, you can work more efficiently and avoid wasting time.
Secondly, it allows you to enjoy your personal time more fully. When you know you have a set time for work, you can relax and enjoy your free time without worrying about unfinished business.
Our home and professional lives should work together. A happy life won’t make you enjoy a job you hate – and a great job cannot compensate for an unhappy life. In order to maximise our own workplace wellbeing, we need to learn to switch off without feeling guilty or checking for the latest notification.